Pilgrimage to Nowhere – In the Beginning
This segment, the first to appear on KtB , is taken from a work-in-progress about the author’s spiritual (and not-so-spiritual) misadventures traveling around the world. An abridged version previously appeared in The Sun Magazine.
If spiritual seekers to Thailand were treated like their sex tourist brethren, a contingent of saffron-robed monks would accost you at the Bangkok airport. They would get all up in your face with an A4-sized laminated menu of spiritual offerings, shouting at you “Intensive Vipassana Meditation! 21-day monastery stay! All-you-can-eat vegetarian meals! Hurt your knees! No sex! Donations only!”
This was not the scene that confronted me on my arrival in Bangkok – although I did find a menu. Instead of exclamation points, it had equanimous paragraphs; instead of A4-sized laminated paper, it was loosely distributed across several poorly-constructed web sites and a booklet from the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Bangkok. Bewildered by the options, I got in touch with a friend of a friend, Joe Cummings, author of Lonely Planet’s Thailand and Laos guidebooks.
“I recommend Doi Suthep, just outside of Chiang Mai,” he replied in an email. “It has a program for international students, and a strong lineage tied to one of the greatest living meditation masters in Thailand, Ajaan Tong Sirimangalo.”
“Have you yourself practiced there?” I asked.
“Yes. In fact, I did the full 21-day intensive,” he replied. “It was hard, very hard, but transformative.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
“Of course, it’s been a few years since I’ve been there,” Joe added in a postscript. “Things change.” This is a disclaimer, I’ve noticed, that he and his Lonely Planet cohorts slip into every guidebook.
I contacted the monastery via email. A message came back from one Phra Sam. Phra is Thai for “monk”; Sam is Canadian for “Sam.” On my application they wanted to know my goals. Goals? “Annihilate my ego, such as it is,” I wanted to say (with the proviso that I could do this during a convenient abbreviated 10-day stay and still make my next flight.) Instead I wrote, “To make compassion the source of my actions.” I’m not sure what I meant by this, but it got me in.
It was late in the afternoon when I arrived at Doi Suthep. Saffron prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, slapping against the parking lot lampposts. A few Thai families and several pairs of young European tourists were noisily making their way up the final 108 steps to the hilltop temple; some older and fatter tourists were waiting for the elevator that had been installed the previous year. At the edge of the parking lot, pushcarts selling Buddhist paraphernalia were doing a brisk business. At the foot of the steps a woman and her twin daughters were begging.
The drive up from Chiang Mai to the 400-year-old temple had cut through a heavily forested mountain side. I’d split a combi with two German girls, one of whom was blonde, cute, and sufficiently charmed during our short half-hour together to give me her email and invite me to stay with her in Berlin – a city unfortunately not on my itinerary. But if I played my cards right, I was guessing, she would have invited me back to her guest house that night – the same night that I, in a karmically cruel twist of fate, would be putting on the white robes of an apprentice monk and swearing an oath of celibacy.
The two German girls and I ascended the stairs together, each with our own burdens. They wore sun hats, and carried only water bottles and tiny shoulder bags; I had a full pack on. I could have taken the elevator but it occurred to me to make of these steps an impromptu mini-pilgrimage. Admittedly, this was no hard slog across the Tibetan Plateau to trek around Mount Kalish in driving snow, but it was what I had to work with. I would squeeze the pilgrim’s narrative into these 108 stairs – 108 being, according to Buddhist metaphysics, the number of difficulties to be overcome in the quest for enlightenment.
So why had I come? In the last four weeks I’d covered 20,000 miles and tramped around five countries. Coming to this monastery was a wholly different kind of journey. It was a personal test; a life experiment. I was going to sit still (literally) in one place for ten days, and travel inwards. Bangkok had taught me something about the sexual underground and my own boundaries; Tokyo, something about modernity and its mutability. With its molten underbelly bubbling to the surface, even Hawaii had given me a glimpse of the profound. This was different.
I’d come to Doi Suthep to see if I had the stuff which monks are made of. I’d come because ever since my college years – and a spate of mystical disruptions I suffered through at that time – I’d wondered if this weren’t my true calling. Deep into my thirties I was still having quasi-religious encounters with a dread- and awe-inspiring presence that I called The Void. Was this openness a blessing or a curse? Had I turned away from my greatest gift? Had I pursued a life of social activism and Abbie Hoffman-style pranking when, for the last twenty years, I should really have been sitting in the lotus position, seeking no-self?
Like any half-literate member of the counterculture, I was theoretically part Buddhist – and, in a sense, I’d come to Doi Suthep to try it on for size. When asked my religion I often check the box “Other.” If the form I’m filling out also has a blank line, I might write-in “atheist with a vivid imagination,” “lapsed secular humanist,” or simply “disorganized.” In my salad days I’d hitchhiked around the West, reading the Beats, the Tao of Physics, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’d parsed my acid experiences as much in the language of Jungian archetypes as Buddhist notions of Maya, Bardo, Nibbana, Karma, and Samsara. Decades later I’ll still turn out in the rain in Central Park to hear the Dalai Lama speak, and over beers, friends and I might exclaim “That’s so Zen!” in the face of an opaque yet paradoxically perfect moment, each of us thinking we know what the others mean. In spite of this semi-Buddhist world view, and my fervid religious imagination – or maybe because of them – I was never a “joiner.” Outside of a short weekend stay here and there at a Zen center, I had never seriously committed to an organized spiritual practice.
And so I’d come to Doi Suthep to see what would happen sitting in silence day after day after day. Would I freak out? Would I invite back in the bottomless vertigo of those earlier mystical experiences? Would I go out of my skull with boredom? Or would I burn away some of my vanities and dross and walk out of this spiritual boot camp slightly more realized, slightly more adult?
At the half-way point of my mini-pilgrimage up Doi Suthep’s 108 stairs, the back of my t-shirt, where it pressed up against the pack, was wet through with sweat. My pack was heavy with books – in part because of the six pounds of Lonely Planet cellulose I was still carrying, in part because my quasi-Buddhist self-education was still in full swing. At an English-language bookstore in Bangkok I had added two volumes to my load: a practical manual for Vipassana meditation, and a collection of essays from one of the country’s most outspoken public intellectuals criticizing the corruption and backwardness of present-day institutionalized Buddhism in Thailand (Doi Suthep included). I had also broken the cardinal rule of backpacking, and included a hardback: Pankaj Mishra’s revisionist account of the Buddha’s life, An End to Suffering – an ironic title, given its contribution to the growing soreness in my shoulders where my pack-straps were digging in. As befits a pilgrim, even one a mini-pilgrimage such as this, I wore the sweat like a marker of virtue, the soreness and pain felt almost purifying. Cresting the final stair – in effect, reaching the 108th and final stage of enlightenment – we arrived at a ticket-window.
The German girls had to pay, while I – an apprentice monk to be – was let in for free. They passed into the main monastery complex; I walked around the side towards the monks’ quarters. It was a separation of worlds: tourists and idle chatter and my lovely blonde temptress in one, me and silence and sublimated sexual desire in the other.
After wandering fifty paces vaguely in the direction indicated by the ticket lady, I was greeted by a white-robed nun. She was squat and bald. Like a stern housekeeper, her eyes sized me up but betrayed no judgment. “Phra Sam was expecting you earlier,” she said, her English choppy with a thickly-accented German. “He is not here now. Come.” She led me along the back edge of the monastery, down a concrete staircase, past a half-built dormitory – rebar poking up into the sky – and finally into a courtyard with scattered concrete benches and two monks robes hanging on a clothes line, saffron against the blue sky.
As we passed through the courtyard, a scruffy black dog crossed our path. I took a few steps off the path to scratch it behind the ears. Am I doing this mindfully enough? I wondered. Can anyone tell?
The nun led me to a poorly-lit meditation room and gave me a thin mat and several wool blankets with which to set up a bed in the corner. Few words were exchanged; speech was purely functional. Dinner had already happened at 11am. The next meal would be at 6:30 the following morning. All apprentices were expected to rise at 4am. Tomorrow after breakfast, Phra Sam would conduct a vow-taking ceremony and give me my white apprentice robes. Until then, I was to wear my most white and most loose-fitting clothing and meditate in the hall upstairs.
After settling in I went upstairs, quietly entering a large rectangular meditation hall. The walls were white plaster. The window frames red and peeling. The floor’s wood slats stained unevenly blond. At one end, a Buddha shrine, at the other, a bank of fluorescent lights had been turned on as it had grown dark outside. I pulled a square cushion under my butt and sat down to meditate. Legs crossed, eyes closed, hands cupped one inside the other resting just below the navel, I tried to let my mind quiet down, coming back to the breath, setting aside wandering thoughts when they might arise. My mind, however, was anything but quiet. I was on a fierce boil. I’d been jamming sights and sounds and smells into my various sensory orifices for four weeks and they were all in play. I had “monkey mind.” Little creatures were clambering all over the furniture inside my head, gibbering away. I knew I needed to settle down, and it would take time, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d made a huge mistake. Looking around in the flickering fluorescent light I wondered what was this place that I’d come to, with its clumsily-made Buddha statue, and strange religious arcana, and that smell – musky, like damp wool. And why was I taking 10 days out of my grand adventure to be frustrated by the everyday workings of my own thick head?
I realized I had somehow expected reality to be more real here. I had expected the East to have something the West could not offer. That somehow by practicing Vipassana, the “Higher Vehicle,” the purest form of Buddhism, the one closest to the original teachings, in a country with a 1500-year-long tradition of this practice, I would get it. It would happen – this purer kind of seeing – almost by osmosis. By the sounds and smells and the residual afterglow of centuries of enlightenment still hanging around these meditation halls.
But in the wake of my first attempts, it seemed that this was just a romantic notion, and I just another all-too-gullible Westerner on a spiritual tourism jag, another experience junkie who had to try it all, another lost soul vaguely in search of some ill-defined notion of self – or no-self. And with a bad attitude, at that.
Continue reading the second in the series: “Testing the Vows of Celibacy.”
Andrew Boyd is the author of Daily Afflictions and Life's Little Deconstruction Book (both W.W. Norton). He is founder of the satirical grass-roots media campaign Billionaires for Bush and a founding partner of Agit-Pop Communications, which creates flash animation and online video for environmental and social-justice campaigns. He lives in New York City with his wee laptop.